I daresay few of us were ever expecting to see Stacey Solomon on the BBC News homepage, least of all in her bikini, but for better or worse that’s exactly where she ended up on Monday. For several hours, social and mainstream media was diverted from Chris Pratt’s marriage split and Trump’s ongoing staffing crisis by a short, humorous Instagram video posted by the TV presenter from her family holiday in Cyprus. In it, a bikini-wearing Solomon lists the physical flaws that give her most pleasure. She shakes and wobbles what she describes as her “muffin top” and says it provides insulation and cushion. Zooming in for a close-up of her stretchmarks, she instructs her two small children to draw on them. From under her breasts, she pulls an ice lolly and a pair of sunglasses, to demonstrate that her “saggy boobs” mean she never needs a handbag on holiday. The video, viewed over 264K times and climbing, has attracted nearly 3,600 almost entirely positive comments from followers.
Still not sure why this is news? Neither was Twitter, which criticised the BBC for covering such a seemingly insignificant and shallow story. But this is not Solomon’s first time on the body-image soapbox. Over the past two years, the Loose Women panellist has gradually, and perhaps even unwittingly, made herself an unlikely but influential voice in the body-positivity movement. It began last summer, when she found herself splashed across the tabloids for having the audacity to wear a bandeau bikini on her imperfect body while on a family holiday in Ibiza. “Top flop… Former X Factor singer Stacey gets that sinking feeling” said the picture caption, in reference to Solomon’s breasts – which are made of real flesh, have twice been through pregnancy, fed two babies and, consequently, run a little lower than those we’re bombarded with in mainstream media. The Sun ran the picture next to another beach shot, of singer Louisa Johnson, nearly 10 years Solomon’s junior, in a crocheted bikini, with a throwaway line about how the teenager was showing Stacey “how it should be done”. Solomon, who hadn’t posed for the pictures, expressed her upset and defiance over the comments (as did, it must fairly be noted, Johnson). She said afterwards: “I don’t have a problem with my body. I’m proud of it. I eat well, I’m active… I love my body. My boobs can be as saggy as they want.” She said the message being sent to young women that her healthy, natural body isn’t normal made her “sick to her stomach”.
While no woman should have to show skin to make a point, I can understand why, for this year’s family holiday, Solomon decided to take the power away from the tabloids and own the inevitable press coverage of her bikini body, using it to bolster, not shame, her fellow women. And the fact that she posted it on Instagram, where such honest depictions of physical beauty are rare, is both refreshing and helpful. In May, Solomon (who joined her Loose Women co-stars in posing in her pants and bra for a series of unairbrushed images to promote body positivity) said she felt that megastars like Kim Kardashian had a moral obligation to show women that the flawless images of celebrity bodies aren’t normal, or even real. “‘For all of the people they influence and for those young girls that aspire to be them, they need to show actually, we all look like this,” she said, describing most celebrity bodies as “completely unrealistic” to young girls. She also advised the parents of sons feeling under pressure to look muscly, to “reverse the brainwash” by asking them to unfollow dishonest or perfect-looking Instagram accounts.
While a glossy magazine is widely received by most readers as fantasy, apps like Instagram suggest a degree of veracity and authenticity
In not so many words, Solomon poses an interesting question: if the men and women of social media post photographs of their bodies, do they have a moral obligation to at least stop pretending they’re really that perfectly taut, smooth, slim and lean? Calls for greater transparency will no doubt annoy some social-media users, particularly influencers for whom physical perfection is a brand. They may rightly ask why, when magazines and advertising campaigns have been retouching images since their inception, should DIY content providers be denied the same opportunity to present themselves in the most flattering light? But the difference in context is stark. While a glossy magazine is widely received by most readers as fantasy, the “picture diary” and snappy nature of apps like Instagram suggest a degree of veracity and authenticity (particularly when accompanied by the often-abused #nofilter, #makeupfreeselfie and #noretouch hashtags). And, while most magazines will admit very openly that they engage in some degree of retouching, I see several even high-profile content providers on Instagram routinely deny their use of retouching software when commenters ask about it beneath images that, to my eye, look more like animation or pop art than photography.
It’s easy to see how we got here. As pressure on young people to look beautiful has increased, technology has advanced to such a degree that one can lose a dress size at the touch of a button. What used to take a magazine’s art director hours of painstaking retouching now takes a 12-year-old a couple of seconds on a £4.99 smartphone app. One can smooth out dimples, lengthen legs, shrink buttocks, eradicate love handles, add a suntan and a little gleam. Some phones will even automatically identify physical flaws and doctor them as standard, and in 2015 Dr Pippa Hugo, a psychiatrist specialising in eating disorders (the cases of which doubled between 2012-2015, according to the NHS) at The Priory Hospital, claimed that nine out of 10 of secondary schoolgirls “digitally enhance” their images before posting on social media.
Hugo’s statistic may be more legitimate a subject for the news than Stacey Solomon’s “mum hips”, but given how many retouched images of celebrities appear pointlessly on news sites every day, a little balance on that score may not be as bad as Twitter users think. In 2017, just the sight of a famous woman genuinely and unapologetically delighting in her normal, unenhanced, imperfect body is unusual enough to make it newsworthy. And while the genie of retouching can’t ever be put back into the bottle, public figures like Stacey Solomon offer us a vital reality check.